It may not quite be Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade but the recent ructions inside Australia’s peak poetry body have left some literary insiders scratching their heads at how it has quite come to this.

Two weeks ago, in a long and passionate email, the Director of Australian Poetry Ltd, Paul Kooperman, hastily vacated his prized position, accusing board members of abandoning him after a long period of creative tension.

“I think it’s taken me a while to come to grips with the fact that the situation is beyond repair,” Kooperman wrote despairingly. The decision was “less a logistical one and more a philosophical one — about the difference in attitude, background, expectations and vision for the organisation by different staff and Board members from these two previous organisations.”

Kooperman accuses board members of breaching their directors duties by failing to act in the best interests of the organisation and reveals he has referred the alleged malfeasance to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and peak funding bodies the Australia Council and state-based arts quangos.

“Board Directors have acted with self interest in an attempt to control the organisation, placing pressure on the budget, programming, disempowering staff and operating (and making key decisions) without any due process in place,” he wrote.

Kooperman was immediately banned from Australian Poetry’s Wheeler Centre offices and issued with a formal cease and desist letter. His departure follows the sudden resignations of general manager Robert Lukins and publications manager Victoria Amy, who both downed quills amid an all-consuming factional war reminiscent of the Victorian branch of the ALP.

The organisation is now in limbo with new staff being brought on to salvage the ship and acquit a number of outstanding grants. A temporary director, Cathy Brown-Watt, has been appointed.

The split can be partly traced to the merger of the old school NSW-based Poets Union and the Melbourne-based Australian Poetry Centre in 2011. But Kooperman also says an apparent hostility to a straitened business-like approach left him hamstrung. Crikey understands that other points of contention included lukewarm support for poetry slam events and, according to one insider, “anything online”.

Australian Poetry’s flagship publication is its Australian Poetry Journal. This has subsumed the old Poetry Centre’s Blue Dog and the Poets Union’s Five Bells following the 2011 merger.

Crikey understands that Kooperman and Australian Poetry’s Treasurer, Marcus “Dr Business” Powe (also RMIT University’s Entrepreneur in Residence) formed a two man bloc dedicated to setting the organisation on a rigorous fiscal footing.

This chafed with the majority of the board, including scene veteran and chairman Chris Wallace-Crabbe, NSW-based secretary Anna Kerdjik Nicholson and respected published poets David Musgrave and Margaret Bradstock.

The final straw came after a tense staff review process:

“I have always been optimistic that things were going to improve, but at my staff review last week, and a meeting with the Chair and Treasurer more recently, it was clear nothing has changed and the Board seems less interested in negotiating a positive outcome and more interested in having things their own way.”

Australian Poetry issued the following statement this morning: “It’s regrettable that Paul Kooperman has taken this course of action on the basis of unfounded allegations against the board of Australian Poetry Limited…Australian Poetry Limited and its Board will continue to vigorously defend its position on this issue.”

Despite the rancour, it wasn’t all rainy days during Kooperman’s his 17 month reign, with the recent father of twins admitting that “he thoroughly enjoyed building new audiences for poetry and engaging Australians with the art form”. He also “loved working with the staff and also the Board at various times.”

Two days after the initial email, Kooperman sent a more formal follow-up. It was subject-lined “Bold and Beautiful”, to mark the TV debut of the daytime soap opera on March 23, 1987.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.